A bunch of phonies
Anyone inclined to see Everybody’s Fine, writer-director Kirk Jones’ loose adaptation of a 1990 Italian movie by Giuseppe Tornatore, will probably be just as inclined to bend over backward for it. It features a quartet of actors whose talents vary from respectable to titanic, and three of them are at last doing “serious” work after frittering away 10 years or more in schlock far beneath their abilities. Seeing this bunch flex their dramatic muscles again can make us want the movie to be worthy of them.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Everybody’s Fine is lousy.
Robert De Niro plays a retired and recently widowed factory worker named Frank. As the movie opens, he’s looking forward to a weekend visit from his four adult children, now scattered across the country; he puts in stocks of food and wine and even buys an expensive barbecue to grill the steaks.
One by one the kids call up and beg off; they’re sorry, but they can’t make it after all. Frank decides, in defiance of his doctor’s orders, that he’ll pay a surprise visit to each of them, one by one.
So he takes the train from his Connecticut home to see his son David, an artist in New York. But David isn’t home, so he moves on to his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale) in Chicago. Then he pops in on Robert (Sam Rockwell), a symphony musician somewhere on tour (Denver, if memory serves). After that, it’s on to Rosie (Drew Barrymore) in Las Vegas.
On each leg of the journey, as we see Frank rolling by bus and train through the countryside, we hear Amy, Robert and Rosie on the phone, each apprising the next of Frank’s progress, even though he wants his visits to be surprises. We also learn what Frank doesn’t know: the reason the kids didn’t come to see him in the first place. David, the other son, wasn’t just away from home when Frank dropped by; he’s missing, somewhere in Mexico, and Amy is flying down there to try to find him.
What eventually happens to Frank, and how this all works out, is probably something I shouldn’t get into here. But it’s hard to explain the bone-deep phoniness of Everybody’s Fine without giving away more plot than most people want to read in a review.
Still, there are a few things we can say. The English Kirk Jones, making his third film and his first set in America, seems to have the most provincial Englishman’s cluelessness about what cross-country travel in the United States entails. I haven’t seen Tornatore’s 1990 movie, but sending his protagonist all over Italy is just about credible, given Italy’s national railroad system. In Everybody’s Fine, Frank travels nearly that far just going from David’s New York apartment to Amy’s house in Chicago—with Denver and Las Vegas still on the itinerary. (Although in fact, Jones’ production unit never left New York and the cozy environs of Connecticut.)
Geographic distance isn’t the only thing Jones is clueless about. There’s also the emotional distance between Frank and his children. He was always too demanding of them, we’re told, and too busy working to concern himself with their lives.
Frank’s late wife was the buffer, always assuring him, “Everybody’s fine,” and relaying their lies about their successes. Amy’s marriage isn’t secure and her teenage son isn’t at the top of his class; Robert isn’t a symphony conductor (he plays the bass drum); and Rosie isn’t a Vegas showgirl (she’s a coffee-shop waitress). And about the absent David, Frank seems to be most oblivious of all. Jones and De Niro establish Frank as a blind, headstrong old fool, then would have us believe he somehow learns the truth in a blinding flash of fatherly intuition.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to see De Niro sinking his teeth into something besides Analyze This and Meet the Fockers; Barrymore trying once again to live up to her immortal surname; Beckinsale really acting at last after building a career on garbage like Pearl Harbor, Van Helsing and the Underworld franchise. But we can’t pretend a piece of earnest piffle like Everybody’s Fine is a proper vehicle for their undeniable talent, and that of Rockwell. To do that, we’d have to be almost as deluded as Frank.